Most of the current obesity research is not proving helpful in finding solutions to the growing international epidemic, according to a Deakin University public health expert.
Professor Boyd Swinburn believes that research funding would be better directed at testing possible solutions rather than continuing to unpick what is causing the rise in obesity.
"It seems counter intuitive, but knowing the causes or mechanisms for weight gain does not always help with identifying the solutions," he said.
"For an individual person, we know the causes of weight gain over time include the obesogenic environment, genetic predisposition, and increasing age – none of which can be influenced by the health professional trying to help the person lose weight. At a population level, the commercial drivers which promote our overconsumption of food are unlikely to be reversed by the private sector because there is no commercial gain for the food industry to promote eating fewer calories.
"The twin bottom line is that we need to re-orient our research towards testing potential solutions rather than just better identifying the problem. The most promising approaches for individuals and populations will involve identifying the right set of 'rules' or policies which lead to sustainable environmental and behavioural changes."
Professor Swinburn says that identifying solutions needs specific solutions-oriented research and unfortunately most of the current research into obesity is problem-oriented.
"Interestingly, the solutions that are the most likely to work seem to be 'rule-based' solutions," Professor Swinburn explained.
"For overweight individuals, so long as they can stick to a set of dietary rules which results in a reduced calorie intake, it doesn't seem to matter what foods are included or excluded. This is why lots of different types of diets which are unrelated to the dietary causes of weight gain can produce weight loss.
"Similarly, at a population level, it is likely that rules or policies are likely to be the most promising for prevention. Education, guidelines, industry self-regulation, and government ads on TV are unlikely to have much influence and stronger policies will be needed."
Professor Swinburn will be speaking about the causes of the current obesity epidemic and potential solutions today (Thursday 21 May) at the Public Health Association of Australia ACT Branch's Sax Oration in Canberra.
Professor Boyd Swinburn is chair of population health and director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.
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